The Word and the Power

Posted: August 27, 2014 by J in General

In Mark 3 Jesus goes up the mountain, and calls twelve apostles. He authorises them for two tasks: to announce the good news, and to cast out demons. Of course the two tasks are related: the message is that the kingdom of God is coming in power, bringing release from sin and Satan. Exorcism is a natural expression and sign of this new state of affairs.

In the West, we feel comfortable with half of the apostolic ministry, but not the other half. Teaching stuff is ok, spirit stuff is not.

In our tradition, since the early centuries of the Roman church, the Holy Spirit’s role has been minimised. Father and Son have usually been to the fore, sometimes the faith has seemed to teach a Duad or Binity. Power tended to be seen as invested in the church and her priests, rather than in the transcendent movements of the Spirit. The gospel was felt to need to authorising stamp of the state. One symptom of this Binitarian tendency is that Jesus’ death has always been invested with more theological significance than his resurrection.

The Reformation put the spotlight on the church’s teachings, especially regarding justification. Justification was now seen to be the action of God through Christ towards those who believed the message. Where the Roman church taught justification as a result of the Spirit’s transforming work, for Protestants justification had nothing to do with anything in us: i.e. the Spirit had little role in justification. In other words, the traditional biases of the Western church were not challenged but rather reinforced. The authority of the sacramental priests became the authority of the teachers. Father, Son and teaching were given primacy. The Spirit was minimised again. One symptom of this is that Protestants in general have found it comes naturally to listen and read, but not to pray.

There is a gnostic tendency in all this: we in the West have always liked the idea of a message which is powerful, in and of itself, to bring us to a place of enlightenment and salvation. If we can learn and know the hidden truth, we can attain eternal life.

Ironically, this emphasis on the role of teaching to the neglect of Pentecost left the church open to having its message challenged. For if the message is powerful in itself, then why couldn’t a different message also be powerful? – perhaps even more powerful. Just as the Reformation had challenged the Roman church’s teaching, so at the Enlightenment rival messages infiltrated the faith: ideas of progress and the evolution of Man towards Utopia. Having cast out the old pagan demons, the Western church had failed to embrace the living sovereign person of the Holy Spirit: so the Spirit of Man and the Spirit of History came in to fill up the void. New priests arose to challenge the authority of the old Christian ones. Now modern ideas and modern education were seen as the best way to enlightenment and freedom. They still are.

Notice that although the content of the message has shifted profoundly, the structure of thought has remained the same: we are still looking to a teaching that can of itself empower and save us. The West is still gnostic in orientation.

Where the apostles might have challenged these rival teachings in terms of a demonstration of power and of the Spirit, the best the Western church has been able to do is to claim its teaching is better, truer than the Enlightenment doctrine: an abstract claim that is hard to prove.

The Eastern church, always more clearly Trinitarian than us, did not experience an equivalent overthrow.

This sort of psycho-theological analysis of our tradition is not easy to prove. Much of the trouble goes on below the surface of consciousness: everyone always subscribed to Trinitarian doctrine and thought prayer was important. No doubt some readers will be saying, ‘But Calvin taught the Holy Spirit’. (True, he did!) But on the large scale, the signs are there, the emphases are there, and the result in our Western culture is plain for all to see. We are the only civilisation to have developed a thorough-going atheism.

In Mark 3 Jesus sends out messengers to teach and cast out demons. To bring the light of truth authenticated by the power of God. ‘If it is by the Spirit of God that I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you’ (Matt 12). I wonder how we in the West can overcome our age-old unease about the Holy Spirit, and reclaim our Trinitarian gospel heritage? In an age when our message is no longer the default belief of our society, that might kinda come in handy?


  1. Dear brother,
    I like to write you that your thoughts are mostly a joy for me to read. And therefore I trust that you ahve received the spirit of God and are calling HIM “ABBA, Father!” That’t why I am writing you.

    It is good to mention what Jesus said in Matth.12.28 about the Spirit of God. But that doesn’t mean that we have to deal with three persons or a trinity. There is no Trinitarian gospel heritage.
    Why you use a word the apostle Paul is not using once in all his 13 or 14 letters?
    You must see, that this is against his clear teaching for instance in 1Cor.8.5-6: (as there are gods many, and lords many,) 6 yet to us [there is] one God, the Father, of whom all things, and *we* for him; and one Lord, Jesus Christ, by whom [are] all things, and *we* by him.)
    Since God is Spirit and Jesus as well (Joh.4:23; 2Cor.3:17; Acts 17:27.28), we can conclude that no third person in necessary, but GOD became FAther when Ps,2:7 happened and Jesus was born (John 1:18). He did nothing without the father.
    He is sitting now at the right hand of the father (no where you find that the HSpirit at His left hand. But we are allowed to pray directly to the Father in Jesus name, as we shall do everything in Christ’s name (John 16:24; Col.3.17). So if the Spirit is mentioned it means GOD and if God it means the Spirit (as seen in your obove verse 12.28 for John 5:19 fits here also) but verse 32 proves also that this is true, for God is not mentioned here.
    Well I am writing you from Berlin Germany and I hope you understand what I want to communicate to you.
    In the end I like to greet you with The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the communion of (not with) the Holy Spirit, [be] with you all. As Jesus said and 1John (1:3 please read) Remember John 14.18 Talking about the comforter : I will not leave you orphans, I am coming to you. And so in Joh.14.21 He that has my commandments and keeps them, he it is that loves me; but he that loves me shall be loved by my Father, and I will love him and will manifest myself to him. and 23 my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our abode with him.
    In Christ
    Hans-Udo Hoster

    • J says:

      Hi Hans-Udo,

      Thanks for commenting! It’s a pleasure to hear from someone from Germany here at the Grit. You sound like a man who loves Jesus, brother.

      You mentioned the problem of using a word Paul never uses: Trinity. I’m pretty comfortable with that. Nearly all the words in my bible are not words Paul used: my bible has english words, Paul wrote in greek. But if we translate the ideas of his greek into English, then I can understand his gospel. It’s the same with words like Trinity: if it expresses an idea from the bible, then I’m happy.

      It’s great to see you wrestling with bible texts to understand who God is. I want to encourage you to wrestle also with the stories. In the gospel, God sends his Son and he gives his Spirit to him. The Son is raised from the dead and receives the Spirit as a gift from his Father, and pours out that Spirit on his disciples.

      So in the story the Son and the Spirit are God’s ways of visiting his creation. There is one who sends, one who is sent, and one who is given to empower and fill the sent one. The Spirit is God’s gift, no less than the Son is.

      I think it is true that the Spirit is sometimes spoken of more like a force or power – in neuter gender. But other times we see it has many personal attributes. Such as will or purpose. And grief.

      So the church’s belief in the Trinity has really just come from reflecting on the story of the gospel, and letting that story reveal God to us.

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